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Melannurca apples are a small to medium-sized varietal, averaging 6 to 8 centimeters in diameter, and have an asymmetrical, ovate shape. The apples often have slanted shoulders and are flattened, giving the fruits an unusual, squat appearance. The skin is thick, chewy, and slightly vegetal and has a muted, matte, and waxy feel. Melannurca apples have a yellow-green base and are almost entirely covered in a burgundy, crimson, to dark red hue. The apples are also topped with grey-brown russeting in the stem cavity that extends over the shoulders, and tiny pale brown to tan lenticels are scattered across the surface. Underneath the skin, the white flesh is aqueous, slightly granular, and crisp with a soft finish. The flesh also encases a central core filled with tiny dark brown seeds. Melannurca apples emit a sweet and fruity, aromatic scent and have a sugary, sweet flavor combined with mild, tangy acidity.
Melannurca apples are harvested in the late fall and are left outside in the sun for several weeks to develop color and flavor. This cultivation process staggers the variety's availability, leading the apples to be found from the winter through the early summer.
Melannurca apples, botanically classified as Malus domestica, are a rare Italian variety belonging to the Rosaceae family. The cultivar is thought to be one of the oldest apples grown in Italy, and the production of the apple dates back to the Roman Empire. Throughout history, Melannurca apples have been known by many names, including Mala Orcula, Orcole, Anorcola, Annurca, and Annorcola, but in the modern day, the apples are primarily sold under Melannurca. The name Melannurca is an IGP-protected brand name developed for the apples when the fruits are grown in the region of Campania under strict standards. The apples are also known as Melannurca Campana IGP, but the name is often shortened in markets to Melannurca. Annurca and Rossa del Sud are the two main varieties sold under the Melannurca name, with Annurca being the original apple and Rossa del Sud a natural mutation of Annurca. Melannurca apples are distinct from their traditional cultivation methods. The apples don't ripen evenly on the tree and often fall before they are ripe due to their thin stems. Since they prematurely drop, Melannurca apples are picked from the trees before they mature and placed on raised plots of land to ripen and turn red in the sun. It is customary for the fruits to be set on wood chips, hemp, straw, or pine needles to prevent moisture damage, and partial shades are hung above the raised plots to protect the apples against the weather. Melannurca apples are hand-turned periodically throughout a 15-to-50-day period to become ripe and red, and once saturated in color, they are transported to local markets for sale.
Melannurca apples are a source of potassium to balance fluid levels within the body, vitamin C to strengthen the immune system while reducing inflammation, and fiber to regulate the digestive tract. The apples also provide iron to develop the protein hemoglobin for oxygen transport through the bloodstream, manganese to produce connective tissues, phosphorus to create genetic material, and other nutrients, including vitamin B1, vitamin B2, and pectin.
Melannurca apples have a sweet, tart, and subtly tangy flavor suited for fresh and cooked preparations. The variety is traditionally consumed fresh and savored for its unique taste developed through cultivation. Melannurca apples can also be chopped into salads and slaws, dipped whole in chocolate and served as a dessert, or sliced and layered on sandwiches. In Italy, Melannurca apples are favored for their use in various desserts, including crumbles, tarts, pies, cakes, and muffins. They are also incorporated into risotto, simmered into sauces for roasted meats, or cooked into jams, jellies, and syrups. In addition to culinary preparations, Melannurca apples can be made into a liqueur, blended into juices, or pressed into juice and stirred into cocktails for a fruity, tangy taste. Melannurca apples pair well with vanilla, chocolate, maple syrup, spices such as cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg, and salted caramel. Whole, unwashed Melannurca apples will keep for several weeks when stored in a cool, dry, and dark place. They can also be held in the refrigerator's crisper drawer.
Melannurca apples are known as the apples of the underworld. The variety received its otherworldly moniker from its record in Pliny the Elder's Naturalis Historia. According to Pliny the Elder, Melannurca apples were native to the Puteolan countryside. This region was home to Lake Avernus, a volcanic crater lake that was thought to mark the entrance to the underworld. Legend has it that the lake kept the gates or doorway to where Hades resided, and the volcanic gas that fumed from the lake was believed to be the fumes emanating from the underworld. Since the apples were initially grown in regions surrounding the mythical gate to Hades, they were at one time known as Mala Orcula, translating to mean the "apple of the underworld." Despite their ominous moniker, Melannurca apples remained a popular variety throughout history and were not hindered by their dark nicknames. In fact, each November, Melannurca apples are celebrated at the Annurca Apple Festival in the Valle di Maddaloni. This annual event attracts street performers, chefs, and apple enthusiasts, and the celebration is filled with live entertainment and curated culinary menus to showcase the historical apples.
Melannurca apples are native to Southern Italy and have been cultivated since ancient times. The exact origins are unknown, but wall paintings of the fruit have been found in the Casa dei Dervi, translating to "House of the Deer" within the Herculaneum, a city destroyed by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. Herculaneum, along with the ruins of Pompeii and Torre Annunziata, were declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1997. Pliny the Elder, a Roman philosopher and naturalist, also recorded Melannurca apples in his work Naturalis Historia, written sometime around 77 CE. In his work, it was mentioned that Melannurca apples originated in the Puteola countryside, and over time, the apples spread in cultivation into the Vesuvius and Phlegraean Fields and throughout other regions of Campania. The variety was also mentioned in Gian Battista Della Porta's work Suae Villae Pomarium and in G. A. Pasquale's Manuale di Arboricoltura in 1876. Throughout history, Melannurca apples were known under many different names, and their production rose and fell, almost disappearing completely at one point with the introduction of modern commercial cultivars. In 2005, the Consortium for the Protection of Melannurca Campana IGP was established to legally protect the variety from extinction and ensure a quality standard was maintained in production. Today Melannurca apples are one of the oldest varieties still grown in Italy and are primarily produced in the Campania region of southern Italy in the provinces of Benevento, Avellino, Naples, Salerno, and Caserta. When in season, the apples are sold through select retailers, growers, and local markets throughout Italy. They are also occasionally exported to other countries in Europe.